Provisional Irish Republican Army

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Provisional Irish Republican Army

LEADER: Gerry Adams

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Northern Ireland; the Republic of Ireland; mainland Britain


The Provisional Irish Republican Army (universally known as the IRA, or "Provos") is Ireland's preeminent nationalist paramilitary organization. A modern successor of the "old" Irish Republican Army that had fought the Anglo-Irish War, it formed following a split with the Official IRA in 1969. Thereafter, its violent campaign of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and robberies—in the Republic and Northern Ireland, plus mainland Britain—followed almost uninterrupted for 25 years. During the 1990s, it entered two ceasefires, while its political wing, Sinn Fein, held peace talks with the British government, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.


The origins of the IRA lie far back, within the Anglo-Irish War (1916–1921), which resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State. The use of force to push through ideals of Irish republicanism had tradition, extending back even further through the rebellions of 1798, 1803, and 1865 to the creation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and Irish Volunteers.

The impetus for the creation of the IRA came after the Easter Rising of 1916—at which a Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read out and independence declared. The rising, organized by the IRB and the Irish volunteers, was militarily and politically unsuccessful and its ringleaders either executed or interned. Following its failure, in October 1917, Sinn Fein, a small republican political party under the leadership of Eamonn De Valera that had wrongly been accused of organizing the rising, set about reorganizing the defeated Irish Volunteers. It organized this new group, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), into hundreds of companies (estimates range between 162-390) throughout Ireland, and over the following four years it was at the forefront of the war to secure nationhood.

When this concluded with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of December 1921, Ireland was partitioned between the 26 predominantly Catholic counties of the south—the Irish Free State—and the six mostly Protestant counties of the north, which became Northern Ireland and remained part of the United Kingdom. The treaty split the IRA, and the Irish Free State descended into a bloody civil war, between the pro-treaty IRA (which became the regular Irish National Army) and those who opposed the treaty as a betrayal of Irish nationalism.

This bloody civil war, which lasted a year, claimed more lives than the War of Independence, and ended in defeat for the anti-treaty IRA. Nevertheless, even after a ceasefire had been agreed with the Irish Free State in May 1923, a minority of the defeated IRA continued to insist that the Irish Free State was created by an "illegitimate" treaty and was an illegitimate state. As such, they refused to recognize it or its institutions, and claimed that the IRA Army Executive was the real government of the still-existing Irish Republic proclaimed in 1918. These would remain important principles for the IRA in decades to come.

An uneasy coexistence emerged between the Irish Free State and the IRA, and the organization flitted between periods of illegality and attempts by the Irish government to reach compromise. During World War II, it sought after arms from Nazi Germany and passed on intelligence to them about bombing targets in Belfast. It also launched an armed campaign in Belfast in 1942.

Post-war, it initiated a campaign of border raids from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland, which included attacks on security installations and attempts to disrupt the province's infrastructure. While this would be the basis for Provisional IRA attacks in later years, the border campaign was regarded as an annoyance rather than a threat and failed to attract significant support from populations on either side of the border. The campaign ended in 1962.

By the end of the 1960s, the IRA was in a state of disarray. It had become increasingly under the influence of left-wing thinkers, who espoused a Marxist analysis of partition, which its critics considered irrelevant, and deep divisions emerged over the issue of abstentionism (essentially, whether the Irish government be recognized). A split came in 1969, and the two groups that emerged became known as the (Marxist-espousing) Official IRA and the Provisional IRA, which carried on the traditions set by the anti-treaty IRA four decades earlier. It continued the long-standing tradition of claiming that the IRA Army Council was the provisional government of a 32-county Irish Republic.

The Provisional IRA soon came to dominate the republican movement (the Official IRA, by contrast, was effectively dormant and declared a ceasefire in 1972), particularly in the north where the Catholic community had been under increased attack from loyalists.

As the intermittent fighting of the late 1960s became full-scale civil chaos, the IRA increased in size, prestige, and notoriety. Incidents such as "Bloody Sunday", in 1972, when British troops killed 13 unarmed civil rights protestors in Derry, and the introduction of internment without trial, boosted its ranks substantially and saw a flow of dollars coming in from a sympathetic Irish diaspora, particularly the United States. From being a poorly armed and demoralized organization in the late 1960s, the Provisional IRA had become, in a matter of years, a sophisticated and well-equipped paramilitary organization with a wide base of support.

The Provo's main strategy in the early 1970s was to disrupt the civil and economic life of Northern Ireland and to attack British military installations. It also set itself out as the defender of Catholics in the province. This manifested itself in a number of ways. British soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers were routinely assassinated, both on and off duty. If loyalist paramilitaries targeted a Catholic, the IRA would seek reprisals either against the paramilitaries themselves or, more commonly, against Protestant civilians.

The group set out to disrupt civil and economic life in the province by starting a bombing campaign in town centers and on other key targets, such as rail and bus stations. Never were its efforts more notorious than on July 21, 1972, when it set off 22 bombs across Belfast. Nine deaths were caused by two of the bombs, including six people at Belfast's busiest bus station.

A year later, attempts to bring a political solution to Northern Ireland failed, and in 1974, the IRA began a bombing campaign in mainland Britain, with the express aim of sapping any political will to hold onto the province that existed within Westminster or the population at large. High-profile attacks included the bombing of a bus of soldiers and their families, killing 12; the bombing of pubs in Guilford and Birmingham, which killed a total of 23 people; and an attack on Harrods department store in Knightsbridge. Car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan also killed 33 people.

Rather than diminishing resolve in Britain, the IRA's sustained campaign of terror meant that no credible politician was willing to talk with them. Over subsequent years, the attacks would increase in notoriety and ambition: from the murder of Prince Philip's uncle, Earl Mountbatten, in 1979, to the attempt to kill British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the bombing of a hotel in Brighton in 1984 during the Conservative Party Conference; the bombing of a Remembrance Day Parade in Enniskillen in 1987 that killed 11 civilians to the bombing of a fish and chip shop on Shankhill Road in 1993, which killed nine Protestant civilians.

Their political marginalization was such that British broadcasters were not even allowed to broadcast the voices of the leaders of its political wing, Sinn Fein. Given this shunning, the IRA was forced to launch audacious stunts to achieve political action. The most notorious of these were the Maze Prison hunger strikes in 1981, when convicted IRA members went on a hunger strike for "prisoner of war" status. Its most notorious advocate, Bobby Sands, died after 64 days without food. He became immortalized as a republican martyr.

Nevertheless, the election of Gerry Adams as Sinn Fein president in 1983 saw moves to bring the IRA back to within a modicum of electoral respectability and to bring a political solution to "The Troubles." In 1986, Adams brought an end to the long-standing principle of abstentionism, allowing Sinn Fein to sit in the Irish Dail (although not Westminster). This recognition that the IRA was not, in fact, the provisional government of Ireland paved the way for tentative negotiations with Dublin and Westminster.

Nevertheless, only in the mid 1990s would the stream of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and Britain begin to come to an end. Secret talks initiated by British Prime Minister John Major led to a ceasefire in September 1994, which held for 17 months. A second ceasefire, called in July 1997, proved more long lasting and paved the way for talks on power-sharing in Northern Ireland, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.



Born to a staunchly nationalist Catholic family in West Belfast in 1948, Gerry Adams was embroiled in nationalist politics from his mid-teens, becoming a member of Sinn Fein at the age of 16. He rose swiftly through the ranks of the party and was an important part of the emergent civil rights movement in the early 1970s. He was interred without trial by the British authorities in 1971, and again between 1973 and 1977.

Ostensibly, this was for IRA membership, although Adams has always denied the accusation. Evidence, nevertheless, suggests otherwise. British and Irish governmental papers and the testimony of former IRA members point to Adams' membership, while Irish justice minister, Michael McDowell, claims Adams and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, were members of the IRA Council until July 2005. In A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney describes in detail Adams' alleged IRA career: joined as an 18-year-old volunteer in D Company on the Falls Road in 1966; went with the Provisionals in 1970; commander in the West Belfast housing estate of Ballymurphy in 1971; member of the Belfast Brigade staff; second in command and then Belfast commander in 1972; interned in 1973; released in 1977 and joined the ruling Army Council; briefly, chief of staff in 1977; Northern commander in 1979; and so it goes on. Adams' supporters, nevertheless, decry such allegations as lies.

Either way, Adams proved an adept and skilled politician, taking a pragmatic long-term view of the seemingly indissoluble problems of Northern Ireland. He rose to vice president of Sinn Fein in 1978, and quickly extolled the controversial view that a military struggle alone would not bring the republicans its desired goals. Sinn Fein and the IRA began to work in synch, adopting a dual policy that became known as "the armalite and the ballot box"—in other words, the pursuit of republican goals through both violent and political means.

While he seemed a relentless hard-liner and a particularly unremorseful individual when faced with the horrors of the IRA's latest atrocity, Adams was slowly realigning Sinn Fein to a point where they could credibly enter the political process. He became president in 1983, and three years later dropped the principle of abstentionism. This meant Sinn Fein could speak to the Irish government, without claiming its authority. Secret trilateral talks with the British and Irish governments in the early 1990s paved the way for an IRA ceasefire in 1994, which held for 17 months. A further ceasefire in 1997 held, and led to the Good Friday Agreement, which provided Northern Ireland with a political settlement. Adams convinced the majority of republican community that this path would provide the mechanisms to eventually deliver a united Ireland by constitutional means.

Adams apparent resignation from the IRA Council in July 2005 and the IRA's disbandment shortly after effectively completed his journey from alleged terrorist to mainstream politician, and his realignment of Sinn Fein from the mouthpiece of the IRA to a genuine political force on both sides of the Irish border.

When devolved government started in the province later on that year, senior Sinn Fein figures took up roles within the government. Although the Northern Ireland Assembly would be characterized by infighting and would be suspended in 2002 because of the IRA's reluctance to publicly decommission its arms, the IRA cease-fire held. Nevertheless, breakaway paramilitary groups, the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, continued terrorist activity, sometimes to horrifying effect. The principles of the "old school" IRA still held strong in some quarters.

Northern Ireland continues to be divided along paramilitary lines, however. While overt sectarian killings carried out by paramilitaries have declined inexorably, the one-time terrorists maintain their hold over their communities in other ways. Gangsterism, drug dealing, and extortion are now a way of life for many former paramilitaries. The robbery of the Northern Bank in Belfast in December 2004 is widely believed to have been carried out by the IRA—a "retirement fund," as some have wryly observed. Moreover, the brutal murder (and cover up) of Robert McCartney a month later and the IRA's refusal to cooperate with the authorities in the pursuit of justice begged serious questions about its integrity and willingness to engage as a lawful organization.

On July 28, 2005, the Provisional IRA announced an end to its armed campaign and stated that it had instructed its members to dump all weapons, and to engage in no "other activities whatsoever" beyond "the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means." It also authorized its representatives to ensure the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning put its arms beyond use.


The Provisional IRA is committed to the removal of British forces in Northern Ireland and the creation of a united Ireland. At various stages in its history, it has also adopted a socialist visage, although the Marxist rhetoric that precipitated its split with the Official IRA in 1969 has seldom been extolled in recent years.

For most of its history, the IRA's claims to be the provisional government of the Irish republic gave it a one-dimensional approach and meant it was unequivocally committed to regaining its perceived mantle by armed struggle only. The tactics of the Provisional IRA were initially threefold: the disruption of economic and civil life in Northern Ireland by targeted bombing; attacks on military and police installations to undermine the British presence; and the "protection" of Ulster's Catholic community.

A fourth strand emerged in 1974 with attacks on the British mainland, designed to test the political will of ordinary Britons and their government's readiness to hold on to the province.

The dropping of abstentionism and the claims to be Ireland's provisional government in 1986 meant it was able to see out a more dualistic policy, a so-called "armalite and ballot box" approach. This would culminate in a lasting ceasefire from 1997 and Sinn Fein's arrival as a mainstream political party shortly thereafter.


Formation of Provisional IRA after a split within the ranks of the former IRA.
Bloody Sunday massacre leads to an upsurge in IRA attacks.
Bloody Friday bombings in Belfast.
Series of IRA outrages in Britain and the Irish Republic.
Election of Gerry Adams as Sinn Fein president.
IRA attempt to kill British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Brighton bombing.
Sinn Fein drops abstentionism, paving the way for negotiations with British and Irish governments.
Ceasefire after secret talks with British and Irish governments.
Second IRA ceasefire paves the way for political talks on Northern Ireland's future.
Good Friday Agreement.
IRA announces disbandment.


A leader in the conservative Daily Telegraph published in the wake of the IRA's call for disbandment in July 2005 viewed the move with suspicion. "The statement says that all IRA units have been ordered to 'dump arms,' without saying all their arms," it pointed out. "It gives no undertaking to co-operate with the forces of law and order, while renewing the IRA's commitment to ending British rule—majority rule—in Northern Ireland. The statement praises 'our patriot dead' and IRA men who have been sent to prison for murder … We hope passionately that a lasting peace will come to Northern Ireland. But, so far, the latest initiative looks like just the latest step in a macabre dance, in which the IRA offers only words, while the democratically elected Government immediately performs deeds in return. What sort of message does that send to terrorists all over the world?"

Irish Republican Army (IRA) a.k.a. Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the Provos


Formed in 1969 as the clandestine armed wing of the political movement Sinn Fein, the IRA is devoted both to removing British forces from Northern Ireland and to unifying Ireland. The IRA conducted attacks until its cease-fire in 1997 and agreed to disarm as a part of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which established the basis for peace in Northern Ireland. Dissension within the IRA over support for the Northern Ireland peace process resulted in the formation of two more radical splinter groups: Continuity IRA (CIRA), and the Real IRA (RIRA) in mid to late 1990s. The IRA, sometimes referred to as the PIRA to distinguish it from RIRA and CIRA, is organized into small, tightly-knit cells under the leadership of the Army Council.


Traditional IRA activities have included bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, punishment beatings, extortion, smuggling, and robberies. Before the cease-fire in 1997, the group had conducted bombing campaigns on various targets in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, including senior British Government officials, civilians, police, and British military targets. The group's refusal in late 2004 to allow photographic documentation of its decommissioning process was an obstacle to progress in implementing the Belfast Agreement and stalled talks. The group previously had disposed of light, medium, and heavy weapons, ammunition, and explosives in three rounds of decommissioning. However, the IRA is believed to retain the ability to conduct paramilitary operations. The group's extensive criminal activities reportedly provide the IRA and the political party Sinn Fein with millions of dollars each year; the IRA was implicated in two significant robberies in 2004, one involving almost $50 million.


Several hundred members and several thousand sympathizers despite the defection of some members to RIRA and CIRA.


Northern Ireland, Irish Republic, Great Britain, and Europe.


In the past, the IRA has received aid from a variety of groups and countries and considerable training and arms from Libya and the PLO. Is suspected of receiving funds, arms, and other terrorist-related material from sympathizers in the United States. Similarities in operations suggest links to ETA and the FARC. In August 2002, three suspected IRA members were arrested in Colombia on charges of helping the FARC improve its explosives capabilities.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

Colin Parry, a peace campaigner whose 12-year-old son, Tim, was killed in an IRA bomb attack in Warrington town center in 1993, gave the call for disbandment a cautious welcome. "I don't say anything other than I welcome these words, but I do think that, as ever, you look for the words that aren't there as much as the words that are. The absence of any absolute ending of violence was a shame. I rather hoped they would say, 'This is it for all time and under no circumstances will we ever return to the armed struggle' … Usually, words like 'sincerity' with the IRA are difficult for me, but I think it's been a clearly thought out tactical decision and one which is based upon the absolute, over-whelming proof that there's nothing to be gained from the continuation of the armed struggle.

"I don't think this war had any winners. There have been losers all round: more than 3,000 lives wasted, families torn apart and a political resolution to the problem halted by the continuation of the violence over 30 years. Those who say it's the violence which got the IRA and Sinn Fein to the table are, in my opinion, talking absolute rubbish. Britain's hands aren't clean as far as the history of Ireland is concerned. I wouldn't argue with that, because I think there's enough history to prove that point, but that didn't justify blowing up buildings and killing police officers, blowing up towns and city centres. Two wrongs don't make a right. The loss of my son never goes away. It's always at the fore …"


Despite the call for the IRA's disbandment and despite Sinn Fein's relative electoral success, the IRA stands at a crossroads in its history. There seems to be three routes newly retired paramilitaries can take. Those hooked on violence and with an inherent belief that only an armed struggle can bring about ambitions as republicans and Irish nationalists may join the flagging ranks of IRA splinter groups, such as the Continuity IRA or the Real IRA, or even form their own paramilitary group. They could take the path trodden by former IRA activists like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and pursue their goals via constitutional methods. There is also the prospect that they will continue operating—as they largely have since 1998—beyond the law and without political interest as gangsters, extorting, robbing, and continuing to make their reputations count financially. A final possibility is that the IRA will merely fade from consciousness, like other revolutionary organizations throughout history, their vision part of people's present, their role part of the past.



McKittrick, David, and David McVeigh. Making Sense of the Troubles. London: Penguin, 2003.

Moloney, Ed. Secret History of the IRA. London: Penguin, 2003.

Taylor, Peter. The Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.

Toolis, Kevin. Rebel Hearts, Journeys in the Republican Movement. London: Picador, 1995.

Web sites

BBC News. "Provisional IRA: War, Ceasefire, Endgame?" 〈〉 (accessed October 14, 2005).

PBS. "Behind the Mask: The IRA & Sinn Fein." 〈〉 (accessed October 14, 2005).


Real Irish Republican Army

Continuity Irish Republican Army

Irish Republican Army

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